Saturday, May 27, 2017

"Jesus Under Fire"


Jesus of Nazareth. He is one of the most well known people in history. Even though he had no great political or literary role in life, countless people know His name and even recognize His words. His life and ideas have permeated our world and are still the source of reflection and interest. Some people hate Him, some people revere Him, and some worship Him as God and believe He is the focal point of reality and the only hope here and hereafter. But all of this presupposes that we know something about Him. But do we--can we know anything about Him? Was the the real Jesus of Nazereth someone completely different and unlike from the picture preserved for us in the writings of His followers? That is to say, was the Jesus of History someone different from the Jesus of Faith? Some scholars claim that He was--that the Jesus we know is not the Jesus who really lived (just as,if King Arthur actually existed, he was probably someone very different from the King Arthur we know and love from the traditions and legends that grew up about him.) The book Jesus Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents the Historical Jesus (Wilkins and Moreland, Zondervan, 1995) is an attempt to answer such questions, to show that there is valid reasons for supposing the Christian scriptures and traditions accurately portray the historical Jesus.

There are two opening notes that need to be made about this book. First, it is a collection of individual chapters or articles written by different people, including Darrell Bock, Gary Habermas, and William Lane Craig. The variety of authors makes it difficult to say anything in general about the style. Some of the chapters are in a more, easy popular style while some (Craig's in particular) are very technical and perhaps a little dry. Moreover, while there is a general outline of the book, there is some overlap because of the varied authorship. So, for instance, there are three separate (though essentially similar) discussions of Josephus's testimony about Jesus.

The second note is that this book is largely written in response to the Jesus Seminar, a group of scholars who attempted to rethink and publicize a new image of Jesus, claiming that the version of Jesus known by most modern people is not the “the real Jesus” (2) A significant portion of the book is directed against the Jesus Seminar and some of its leading figures, such as J. Dominic Crossans and Marcus Borg. The authors of this book specifically challenge the Jesus Seminar on several counts: they are not (as they claim) representative of Biblical scholarship (19-20), they employ arbitrary and unrealistic standards in their study of Jesus (20-21, 127-128), and they contend that the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas is not only as accurate as the canonical gospels but significantly earlier (22). A large part of the book seems intended to “cast serious doubt on [the Jesus Seminar's] claims to speak for a consensus of modern scholars.” (25) This is an important part of the book, firmly dating it (the book is over twenty years old and the Jesus Seminar is ten years older). Thomas Oden is quoted on the back of the cover as saying: “The Jesus Seminar is the creation of a media-culture looking for a story.” As such, it was destined to be a brief sensation and, so far as I know, is no longer a vocal or especially relevant force. As such, there are some portions of this book which are somewhat irrelevant. However, the central question the Jesus Seminar raised and the question this book seeks to the answer--can we know anything about the Jesus of History?--is still very much alive and the insight the book gives us on that is still relevant.

What can we know of Jesus? We do have testimony about him from early Jewish and Roman sources which establish the some facets of his life. (These are dealt with throughout, but especially in chapter 8). We have evidence that he was the brother of James, that he worked miracles, and that he was crucified under Pontius Pilate. However, the main the source for information is the early texts written to record his life and actions--the four gospel. Craig L. Blomberg, in the first chapter, deals with the reliability of the gospels. He argues that there is good internal and external evidence for dating the synoptics, at least, “within about thirty years of Christ's death... and well within the period of time when people could check up on the accuracy of the facts they contain.” (29) The rest of book seeks to examine the nature of and evidence for the record of Christ--the works He did, the words He said, the miracles He performed and His Resurrection from the dead.

Perhaps the most interesting and important part of the book is that it tackles head on the question: Are the Gospels intended to be accurate history and, if so, in exactly what sense? It seems that the gospel did intend to record accurate history (as Luke makes clear in his preface). The fact that the gospel writers wrote for a specific religious purpose does not undermine their ability to write history. Most history in the ancient world was not “dispassionate history;” men recorded events that they believed were significant for some reason--if there was no significance, “why bother to record and pass on the story”? (36-37) Since they were written for a purpose, the authors used their own judgment to summarize and arrange material, but that does not mean they simply made things up as they went along.  The fact that there are slight differences between the Gospels does not destroy their historical nature--they are only to be expected and in some cases were intentional as the various writers told the same story for different purposes, highlighted one aspect or another. “In the beginning there were no tape recorders, but that does not mean that the oral transmission of Jesus' words in the Gospels was haphazard and uncontrolled.” (94)

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